Uris Hall. Photo courtesy of Souren Papazian.
Protesters at the opening of Uris Hall. Photo courtesy of WikiCU.
On the day Uris Hall was completed, students at the School of Architecture came out with signs that read “No More Mudds” and “No More Uglies,” and claimed that if they were to design something like Uris, they would fail their classes. The fact that Uris is a desecration of the McKim & White Beaux-Arts campus is, perhaps, the only consensus that Columbia students have ever arrived to. Although we may be used to Uris being there, it is important to take another look at it not so much to criticize it, but more so to understand the implications behind its history and its future trajectories.
University Hall. Rogers’ project section and plan. Images courtesy of WikiCU.
Of course, the boxy structure was not always the plan for the central piece of the Northern part of the campus. The original plan of the campus included University Hall, a horseshoe-like building that looked similar to the red-brick structures surrounding it. Due to a lack of funds, only the first floor of that building was completed in 1900. In 1927, Low was still overfilled with books, so a librarian proposed to expand it to the site of University Hall, and architect James Rogers produced drawings for the project. The project was massive, almost the size of St. John the Divine in plan, and, obviously was not built.
Instead of the library project monstrous in its massiveness, the university decided to build Uris Hall, monstrous in its brutal ugliness. When in 1959 the Business School received the permission to build on the site, University Hall was demolished. The only “legacy” of the U-shape of the original building is the circular library on the ground floor. The history of Uris Hall makes one wonder why Columbia settled on what some describe as a huge air-conditioning unit as the suitable design for the site. Well, the project was made possible by a generous donation of $2.5 million from the megabuilder Uris Corporation, under the condition that Uris Corporation itself would oversee the design process. That resulted in “an ugly box that was devised to be cheap and quick to erect, featuring a hideous glass curtain wall and mill finish aluminum as its exterior,” as described in Everything by Design: My Life as an Architect by Alan Lapidus, who was a student at the School of Architecture during the building’s construction and completion.
Left: Uris Hall. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Right: Low Library. Photo courtesy of Columbia University.
Uris Hall claims to be a continuation of the original campus, geometrically referencing Low Library. Uris, especially with the 1984 addition of a front lobby, is similar to Low in size, its steps leading to the entry reference Low Steps, its vertical elements reference Low’s columns, concrete matches Low in color, and the plan of Uris is sort of a deconstructed version of Low’s Greek cross plan with a circular dome. However, the failure of this design is that it replaces Low’s majesty and elegance with aggressiveness. Lapidus remembers the day of Uris’ opening: “Watching from our fourth floor studio windows as the powerful, the great, and the near-great and the near-powerful assembled to honor and glorify the despoliation of a classic campus design – crass commercialism disguised as largesse – all of us architect hopefuls were filled with disgust.” McKim & White’s plan of the campus is not a frozen moment in time – it was designed as framework for interpretation and negotiation, as proven by various other buildings on campus, from Butler to NoCo, that were not a part of the original plan but became a harmonious part of it. Uris does not fit in not because it is more contemporary than its neighbors are, not because of its brutalist aesthetic, not because it doesn’t reference the old campus enough, but because it is a manifestation of commercialistic cockiness on the otherwise elegant campus.
Now that the Business School is looking forward to its relocation to the Manhattanville campus, President Bollinger promised the building to the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, which comprises five of Columbia’s schools, including CC, GS, and GSAS. Bollinger’s vision is to make Arts & Sciences the focus of the Morningside Heights campus. As much as Uris is an architectural stain on Columbia’s campus, it is revealing of the university’s politics, especially in the 1950s-1960s. These decades are exemplified by the school’s projects and decisions that were at best mediocre (e.g. Uris,) at worst scary and discriminatory (e.g. Morningside Park gymnasium a.k.a. “Gym Crow”) from architectural, social, and political points of view. Uris could not reign in its ugliness because its ugliness goes beyond its boxiness. In this context, giving the space of Uris to the Arts & Sciences, whose mission is to “advance the pursuit of learning and communicate that intellectual and moral heritage to successive generations of students,” will potentially create interesting dynamics on campus.